Judge says California, other states may enforce car emissions standards

| 9/14/2007

A Federal court in Vermont this week upheld the right of that state and at least 13 others to adopt tough greenhouse gas emissions standards for automobiles.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sued the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources seeking an injunction against Vermont’s establishment in 2005 of greenhouse gas emissions standards for 2009 and newer car models.

U.S. District Judge William Sessions ruled the auto industry’s arguments invalid, disputing the assertion that the largest auto manufacturers wouldn’t sell cars in states that applied the new standards and would sell only trucks in those states.

Executives with DaimlerChrysler, Ford and GM have issued testimony outlining plans to shift marketing focus to meet consumer demand for high fuel efficiency, alternative fuels and cleaner-burning engines, he wrote.

“It is improbable that an industry that prides itself on its modernity, flexibility and innovativeness will be unable to meet the requirements of the regulation, especially with the range of technological possibilities and alternatives currently before it,” Sessions wrote.

At the center of the legal case is the long-held battle between states and federal authority over industry regulation, and California’s 40-year-old ability to enact more stringent emissions standards for engines due to that state’s ability “to show compelling and extraordinary conditions,” according to court documents.

Testimony in the trial included Vermont officials’ concern that the state would be harmed by global warming hurting maple trees, maple sugar production and the ski industry.

A federal judge in California has waited on a similar suit in that case until the Vermont case was decided, according to the New York Times.

Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania all approved California’s law limiting carbon dioxide emissions in 2009 and newer car models. The Clean Air Act, however, mandates that the Environmental Protection Agency issue a waiver for states to enforce tougher standards than those required by the EPA.

The waiver battle could heat up next month, as both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California Attorney General Jerry Brown have threatened to sue the federal government if the waiver isn’t approved by October.

According to the San-Diego Union-Tribune, several environmentalists have pointed to the auto industry’s “trump card” of using President Bush’s power to deny a waiver, the EPA has “consistently granted California’s applications for a waiver of pre-emption”, according to court documents.

California estimated that 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas pollution comes from passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks.

Sessions’ ruling, however, could clear a path for tougher truck emissions standards in the future – even after trucks have made large strides in emissions reductions.

Sessions noted that diesel is likely to be used more in light-duty trucks and cars due to its lower carbon and improved energy as compared to unleaded fuel.

Sessions 240-page opinion showed the power of California’s clean air laws and the California Air Resources Board.

“It seems beyond serious dispute that once EPA issues a waiver for a California emissions standard, it becomes a motor vehicle standard of the government with the same stature as a federal regulation,” he wrote.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases after Massachusetts – another state wanting to implement greenhouse gas emissions standards – sued the EPA on that agency’s assertion that greenhouse gas emissions were a matter for the Department of Transportation to regulate.

According to the Colorado Motor Carriers’ Association, it would take 60 current-year model trucks to equal the emissions output of one 1988 model heavy duty diesel truck.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer